Staying Sharp Underwater

We ask a lot of our divers to be able to make split-second decisions, have safe actions and reactions, and work in all types of environments; yet, we are not arming them with mental preparedness. (Photos by author.)
We ask a lot of our divers to be able to make split-second decisions, have safe actions and reactions, and work in all types of environments; yet, we are not arming them with mental preparedness. (Photos by author.)

Physical fitness has become the focal point for most public safety departments, and we have recognized the numerous benefits for our profession of having good cardio health and being in good physical condition. But we have been missing a vital part in conditioning our divers during training by not training them in mental preparedness. Public safety diving (PSD) is both physically and mentally challenging to even the most fit and prepared diver. The mental aspect is where everything starts and ends for our high-risk, low-frequency discipline when considering diver survivability. We ask a lot of our divers to be able to make split-second decisions, have safe actions and reactions, work in all types of environments with an overabundance of technical equipment, and be quick to accurately dress while responding to a call, yet we are not arming them with mental preparedness. This should be at the forefront of every PSD agenda.

Mental preparedness is a way of getting your divers’ minds ready to cope with stress during a survival situation and to be successful.

Stress in Training

Incorporating stressors into dive training will prepare the diver to be able to stay calm in a real stressful environment or emergency situation as well as stay focused on lifesaving skills. When you expose your divers to stressful situations, you are giving them a mental picture that they can use to mitigate problems and reduce panic and confusion while increasing motor function and focus on fixing the situation. Divers face many risk factors that affect mental preparedness, including severity of the event, unsuccessful operations, emotional connections to the incident, number of victims, and the probability of not finding the victim during the rescue mode (and in some cases, not at all). Mental preparedness is developed through continual training. It has become more frequent that departments cut dive training time because of department restraints of low staffing, fitting in other mandatory trainings, PR details, inspections, weather issues that we never get to make up, and daily operations, which neglect the dive team’s ability to train. The bottom line for those of you in control of dive training: Our divers need to be in the water training. Sadly, some teams find themselves in the water only during an operation call out with very little training, which is clearly not enough water exposure time to focus on even the basic skillsets or building on stressor recognition drills—and that is dangerous for your team. To be truly proficient, divers need to regularly be exposed to mental preparedness and stress inoculation drills in a controlled environment and then gradually and methodically apply it to scenario-based monthly training. This training needs to be conducted within your department’s safe training standards and in a controlled environment that mimics your high-probability areas. Incorporating mental preparedness and stress inoculation drills into your team’s training can be the key for reducing, or even eliminating, PSD fatalities.

If your divers are not mentally prepared, the chances of survival diminish. One example of not being prepared is from case studies that have shown that more than 76 percent of diver fatalities are found with their weight belts still on. Was this the lack of mental focus and preparedness that such a basic lifesaving skill could be missed?

I cannot stress enough how important mental preparedness is, and you can train your brain to mitigate a stressful situation by practicing. The Navy has already completed the research and developed techniques that we, as public safety divers, can mimic in mental preparedness training; we don’t need to reinvent the process.

Four Steps

Following these basic four steps will give your divers a better understanding of how mental preparedness can assist in the successful outcome of a bad situation. These methods take practice and in-water training. The more exposure you give divers, the better the reaction and outcome will be.

1. Emergency conditioning: A majority of all PSD teams dive in zero visibility, so training your brain to specific body movements in stressful situations in a controlled environment helps build muscle memory. Training your mind to make an unknown situation seem familiar connects hand and body movement conditioning for the future. By performing this emergency conditioning, you are making emergency situations not seem so scary or stressful. The most complex situations can be managed with this conditioning. Using sensory recognition, the smells, the sounds, the textures, or the temperatures, can bring you back to your training to help mitigate the situation.

2. Control the situation: A lot of times the best fix to any dive emergency is to Stop, Think, and Breathe. Through training and focusing on these simple tasks, divers will be able to gain control of the situation. Panic, the body’s natural response to fear, can turn immediately to a fight or flight mode, releasing a chain reaction of a lack of fine motor skills that ultimately ends in failure. Focusing on things you can control helps control the stress, and the situation will then be less likely to defeat your mind. Approach one issue at a time. Often, we make a series of mistakes that compound our issues. In an out-of-air emergency, you only get one move, and that move should be focused on ditching your weight system and getting buoyant no matter what depth. Following your dive protocol on out-of-air emergency procedures should be discussed regularly and practiced in a controlled environment, at a minimum annually. Successfully controlling the situation will only happen with constant training.

3. Think positively: Remember The Little Engine That Could! It might sound silly, but it is one of the best mental preparedness books published. This, along with repetitive scenario-based drills, will put you in a positive mindset that you can accomplish any complicated task. You will fall back on muscle memory and remember that you’ve done this before successfully. Having a positive attitude is vital for the well-being of your divers. Negativity could be the driving factor on whether you succeed or not. There is NO room for negativity on your dive team; it is an addictive cancer and should be eliminated.

Mental preparedness is a way of getting your divers’ minds ready to cope with stress during a survival situation and to be successful.
Mental preparedness is a way of getting your divers’ minds ready to cope with stress during a survival situation and to be successful.

4. Arousal control: Used by pro athletes, arousal control is key to mental preparedness training and being able to perform under stress. To understand it, you have to know that stress helps us survive. As mentioned before, when we perceive stress, we go into fight or flight mode. Our attention gets highly focused, our breathing increases, and our heart rates increase. However, there can be too much stress that causes performance to suffer. Athletes use arousal control to control the way they perform in front of large, screaming crowds and under the pressure of the game. The military uses it during training to teach the soldier to focus under fire. Our divers could use it to calm themselves in an entanglement situation or the emotion building up to the dive, no matter the circumstance. It can train the diver to understand how sights, sounds, and surroundings can affect the way we do business outside the training zone. Being able to react to the cold, heat, nighttime, and the affections shown by the drowning subject’s loved ones can cause us to be mentally affected. Have a plan, practice it, and only focus on those things you can control.

We can continue to give our divers support in and out of the water with peer support teams and mentors who handle post-traumatic stress disorder.
We can continue to give our divers support in and out of the water with peer support teams and mentors who handle post-traumatic stress disorder.

Preparing for the Future

Our industry is packed full of tough people who are ready to splash at the drop of the tones, all with many different levels of certification and experience, but we should all be on the same page with mental preparedness for the environments in which we operate. Train your divers in a safe and controlled environment, with instructors in the water, responding to single, easy problems to start and moving slowly to multiple complex problems. Training with an accredited dive training agency on public safety diver survival can increase the exposure and mental preparedness your divers may need for a more successful outcome in a stressful situation.

Check with your local department on stress and mental health programs. Mental wellness and training should be an ongoing endeavor. We can also continue to give our divers support in and out of the water with peer support teams and mentors who handle post-traumatic stress disorder. These unique groups should be considered in our dive training, operations, and after action reviews.

Keep training, keep diving, and keep each other safe both mentally and physically.

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December 2017
Volume 12, Issue 12
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Pennwell